‘Khartoum’ or — The Imperial Mystical McGyver?
At first the prospects weren’t looking too good for Basil Dearden’s ‘Khartoum’ (1966): it opens with a rather wordy and slightly pretentious voice-over; Lawrence Olivier appears in brownface and hams it up to the max; Charlton Heston initially seems spectacularly miscast as a British General; it has the air of a ‘Lawrence of Arabia’ (1962) knock-off; despite the epic scale and Ultra Panavision 70 format the majority of scenes are dialogue driven taking place indoors whilst Dearden’s directing is so stylistically unremarkable it could qualify as ‘Guy Hamilton-esque’. ‘Khartoum’ also has delusions of grandeur as it contains an opening overture, an intermission and an entr’acte yet is only 12 minutes longer than ‘Sonic the Hedgehog 2’ (2022).
Yet by the end I was wondering if it might not be, in certain respects, more satisfying than Lean’s ‘Lawrence’ as well genuinely surprised that it had beaten Coppola’s ‘Apocalypse Now’ (1979) to certain thematic punches PLUS pulling off a shot that’s better than an equivalent one in Christopher Nolan’s ‘Tenet’ (2020). What the hell’s going on with this truly weird movie?!
Sudan, 1883, and 10,000 Egyptian troops led by a former British officer are massacred and their arms captured by Sudanese tribes led by the religious zealot the Mahdi (Olivier), who is now on his way to slaughter the civilian Egyptians living in Khartoum. Not wanting to send British forces to the region, yet also not wanting to be seen doing nothing, British Prime Minister William Gladstone decides to send Major General Charles Gordon (Heston) to placate public pressure as it was Gordon who ended the slave trade in Sudan and who is now regarded as a hero in the area. It’s a token gesture to avoid proper military involvement as Gordon will be sent alone, yet Gladstone is aware Gordon is a loose cannon as much of a zealot as the Mahdi himself. But it’s not as if one mad man could cause that much upheaval, right? And which man, exactly, are we talking about here?
‘Khartoum’s “issues” hit you from the get-go with Olivier and Heston being initially baffling casting choices whilst those dialogue heavy room scenes do dominate proceedings and though the Ultra Panavision 70 is striking it seems Dearden doesn’t quite know how to fully exploit such a vast, yet narrow, format. Yet as it went on I found myself warming not just to the movie, directing and Gordon but even Heston’s performance itself.
And Gordon is a fascinating character. He professes a Christian faith yet he seems more of a pantheistic libertine. He’s a General with mystical leanings yet is also an engineer with ingenious practical capabilities so he’s a bit like McGyver as well. Plus, the situation he’s in is so insanely impossible it’s all rather captivating and exciting.
After that Gordon turns into Captain Kurtz from ‘Apocalypse Now’, even accompanied by some similar shots of ancient stone heads representing the lethal allure of antiquity to a certain type of adventurer, as noble ideals beget violence. Hey, this is getting pretty cool!
As for those aforementioned dialogue scenes? Turns out they’re rather interesting with the Imperial scheming hooking me in and even though the accusations of pro-colonial orientalism regarding the movie are justified (the Mahdi is evil and that’s that) it at least attempts to grapple with some of the knottiness of Britain’s Imperial mess.
Even the cinematography appears to find some form of footing with Dearden realising the widescreen format works well for horizon lines and the flow of the Nile. Some fun iris shots are clichéd but they break-up the screen nicely and the sporadically exciting battle scenes (second unit director was Yakima Canutt) keep the momentum clipping briskly along.
Then there’s a shot, just after halfway through, that made me sit up in my seat with a furious jolt. Gordon is playing with a child, enjoying what little time is left before the Mahdi’s forces inevitably attack, when suddenly — BLAM! — the top of a towering minaret explodes from an artillery strike. It’s so unexpected, violent and intense you can almost feel the air being displaced by the blast. Put it this way — it’s a more satisfying tower explosion than the one in ‘Tenet’ (2020) because even though ‘Khartoum’s doesn’t do any of that backward time-manipulation bollocks of Nolan’s film (although can you imagine if it did!) it certainly carries the greater narrative and dramatic significance (the one in ‘Tenet’ contains precisely none).
The score is strong with composer Frank Cordell liberally referencing Mussorgsky during the battle scenes, production design’s finely detailed and there’s some great costume design, too (I particularly loved the frilly black little number Gordon gets towards the end).
‘Khartoum’ is a heavily flawed film with plenty of moral and technical problems and deficiencies but after a shaky start I found I was completely engaged and mesmerised by it. It’s only 134 minutes long but it crams so much into those couple of hours that it could easily be (although thankfully isn’t) twice as long. The performances are… unusual to say the least but also perversely fascinating to behold.
It’s no David Lean epic that’s for sure but catch me on a certain day and in a certain mood and there’s the possibility that, given the choice, I’d go for Heston’s batshit crazy Gordon over O’Toole’s comparatively arid, empty and remote Lawrence. Just don’t quote me on that.